The Arty Semite

How Ernst Kantorowicz Escaped The Nazis

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy of Frankfurt am Main City Archive
Ernst Kantorowicz circa 1930.

The historian Ernst Kantorowicz, born to a German Jewish family in present-day Poznań, is remembered for such magisterial studies as “The King’s Two Bodies,” still available from Princeton University Press and a study of King Frederick the Second.

Kantorowicz’s dramatic life has also attracted attention, from service in World War I to his escape from the Nazis, as recounted in Alain Boureau’s “Histoires d’un historien: Kantorowicz” from Les editions Gallimard, published in English translation in 2001 from The Johns Hopkins University Press as “Kantorowicz: Stories of a Historian.”

Yet few readers of books by and about Kantorowicz will fully understand how he survived with war without reading the eminent British historian Leslie Mitchell’s definitive “Maurice Bowra: A Life,” out in paperback in 2010 from Oxford University Press.

Mitchell explains how Kantorowicz was stuck in Germany in fall, 1938. Bowra, a gay Oxford classicist of renowned sedentariness (indeed, a sculpted bronze memorial of Bowra at Oxford transforms him into an armchair., hurried to Germany to rescue Kantorowicz. Thereafter, “one way or another, Kantorowicz believed that Bowra had saved his life,” Mitchell writes, by intervening with authorities.

Kantorowicz was allowed to immigrate to America, where he ended his distinguished career at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Mitchell explains Bowra’s motivation for this valiant assistance: “as friend, and possibly as lover, [Kantorowicz] had enriched Bowra’s life.” Based on his research, Mitchell reiterates that Bowra and Kantorowicz “may, at some point, have been lovers,” based on surviving correspondence and the fact that they met when Kantorowicz was one of the Jewish flock of devotees in the homoerotic circle of German poet Stefan George, a group within a group which also included the poet Karl Wolfskehl and philosopher Kurt Riezler.

Bowra’s memoirs, originally published by Harvard University Press, describe young Kantorowicz as “lithe, yet of masculine firmness, sophisticated, elegant in dress, gesture, and speech.” Even while trapped in Nazi Germany, Kantorowicz kept up a flirting correspondence with Bowra, responding when the classicist sent him a photo of himself as a youth by declaring how Bowra “must have been extremely handsome in your ‘buggerable’ days.”

When Kantorowicz died in 1963, there were three photographs beside his bed: his father, Bowra, and Stefan George. On hearing of his demise, Bowra wrote to their mutual friend, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, to praise Kantorowicz as a “real mensch,” adding that Kantorowicz “stirred my intelligence, bolstered my morale, amused me with dazzling paradoxes and intuitions and formulations.”

Read some of Kantorowicz’s letters (some of them displaying a fairly racy sense of humor and other writings, at a website set up by one of Kantorowicz’s graduate students, the historian Ralph E. Giesey.


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